Jane Austen: A Life / Edition 1

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Overview

In this new biography of Jane Austen, David Nokes plays master sleuth and storyteller in presenting the great novelist "not in the modest pose which her family determined for her, but rather, as she most frequently presented herself, as rebellious, satirical, and wild."

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Editorial Reviews

Linda Simon
Nokes does a splendid job of evoking 18th-century England and the often eccentric figures who populated Austen's world. —Newsday
Claude Rawson
[Austen's letters] are wonderfully revealing, especially strong on the texture of relationships and the tang of social encounters.
The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Nokes (Jonathan Swift) claims originality for his new Austen exploration that it is "a biography written forwards," with "each moment" presented "as it was experienced at the time, not with the detached knowingness of hindsight." But, he concedes, "in the disposition of a character's thoughts. . . .there is some degree of invention." Austen's abbreviated life, aside from teenage attempts at mocking, in manuscript, the lives she observed, was "a constant succession of small events" until she managed to find publishers to chance her writings, first produced for private amusement. By the time Sense and Sensibility emerged in print in 1811, its author was in her late 30s. In 1817, three published novels later, she died, very likely of Addison's disease, an attribution that Nokes buries in the 54th of 81 endnotes in the chapter concerning her death. The author argues with earlier biographers over minor points, describing at length events in Austen's extended family and elaborating on her taste in bonnets and muslins, sponge cakes and dry toast. Such virtuous frugalities overlaid an imaginative life in which the novelist satirically subverted her society. Nokes adds little new beyond his own imagination, which includes entering the minds of his characters and ascribing chicken pox to a decline in health caused by emotional distress.
Library Journal
Nokes (English, King's College, University of London) dispels the benign, sweet, "literary maiden aunt" portrait perpetuated by Austen's relatives. This more frank and open account of her life and family almost reads like one of Austen's novels. Rather than present history as such, Nokes gradually introduces characters and unfolds details and events as they happened or were perceived. Nokes also includes a number of documented quotations of the characters to enhance the more novel-like effect, and he incorporates his own interpretations as if from an omniscient narrator, making the biography interesting and lively. While Myer used much of the same information, Nokes provides more detailed background, regarding, for example, the rejected marriage proposal, the exiled afflicted Austen son, and the aunt accused of thievery. -- Jeris Cassel, Rutgers University Libraries, New Brunswick, New Jersey
Library Journal
Nokes (English, King's College, University of London) dispels the benign, sweet, "literary maiden aunt" portrait perpetuated by Austen's relatives. This more frank and open account of her life and family almost reads like one of Austen's novels. Rather than present history as such, Nokes gradually introduces characters and unfolds details and events as they happened or were perceived. Nokes also includes a number of documented quotations of the characters to enhance the more novel-like effect, and he incorporates his own interpretations as if from an omniscient narrator, making the biography interesting and lively. While Myer used much of the same information, Nokes provides more detailed background, regarding, for example, the rejected marriage proposal, the exiled afflicted Austen son, and the aunt accused of thievery. -- Jeris Cassel, Rutgers University Libraries, New Brunswick, New Jersey
Washington Post Book World
What a feast for Austen addicts!
Christian Science Monitor
In Nokes' hands, Austen has become, in effect, one of the romantic heroines she delighted in crafting. It is a sensitive interpretation, overlaid with the confidence of one who feels that he has seized his subject's soul. Austen's verbal brilliance rings through Nokes's prose.
Kirkus Reviews
While this much-needed revisionist biography sheds new light on the great novelist, it too often obscures the facts of her life behind speculation about what she and her intimates might have thought or felt. Just before her early death in 1817 at age 41, Jane Austen wrote to a niece, "Pictures of Perfection make me sick & wicked." It is ironic, then, that the novelist's family and subsequent biographers should have endeavored to conceal her (and her family's) blemishes. Displaying an impressive command of the Austen archives, Nokes (English Literature/Univ. of London) in contrast highlights various Austen family scandals and exposes how Austen's own mercurial character, for all its virtues, had its vicious side. He shows one of Austen's cousins to have quite likely been the illegitimate daughter of Warren Hastings, the controversial governor of British India; he also attends closely to an aunt's humiliating brush with the law. Nokes eschews anachronistic labels: He portrays Austen not as a modern genius awaiting recognition, but as the sometimes romantic, sometimes caustic wit her family knew. Over and beyond his recognition of how family scandal helped inspire Austen's romantic imagination and solidify her moral sense, Nokes contributes to Austen studies with a series of local observations: He questions, for example, the conventional wisdom that Austen found her sojourn in Bath traumatic. His desire to recreate the world and the writer known to Austen's intimates, however, leads Nokes to indulge overmuch in florid, novelistic renderings of the Austens' various points of view. It would be hard to blame general readers for preferring Valerie Grosvenor Myer's straightforward andaccessible sketch of Austen from earlier this year. Nokes's portrait of a less-than-perfect Austen, then, while it offers new insights and a wealth of detail, employs too much imagination and takes too narrow a perspective to finally satisfy.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520216068
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 11/19/1998
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 592
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

David Nokes is a Reader in English Literature at King's College, London. He is the author of John Gay: A Profession of Friendship (1995), and Jonathan Swift: A Hypocrite Reversed (1985).

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Read an Excerpt



CHAPTER ONE

Family Secrets

Bengal, 1773

It is the rainy season in the Sunderbunds. Inside his lonely makeshift hut the Surgeon-Extraordinary sits writing a letter home to his wife in England. The livid orange sun is sinking over this dismal region of fetid salt-flats, swamp and jungle, and he writes by the light of a reading-lamp she sent him in the last consignment from England. But the lamp has no glass shade, and without this it is practically useless, like the religious books she also sent him, which he has neither time nor inclination to read. It is three years since he last saw his wife, and he knows now that he will never see her again. Toil and disease have wasted his body and depressed his spirits. The richly embroidered waistcoat she made and sent to him hangs unworn in the wardrobe of his garrison lodgings at Calcutta. `I should be the most ridiculous animal upon earth,' he writes, `could I put any finery upon such a carcass as mine, worn out with age and diseases.'

He keeps her miniature portrait on the folding-table in front of him. It shows a slim, elegant woman, with large dark eyes and flowing lustrous hair, dressed in her favourite turquoise gown, with a pearl choker at her neck. The portrait was done for him by Smart in the months before he left England in the autumn of '68. It was encircled by diamonds and meant as a keepsake that he could have by him constantly during his years of lonely exile. But already the fierce Indian climate is fading its subtle colours and smudging its delicate outlines. Before long, he knows, he must send it back to her to preserve it from utterextinction. Then his loneliness will be complete. Beside it, on the table, stands another portrait, of the girl he calls his daughter, made up of clippings from her own hair. But her lovely, smiling features are quite unrecognizable in this clumsy daub. He received it only weeks before and his dismay at seeing it was indescribable. Where were the bright eyes he loved, the soft pink girlish cheeks? All vanished. In this ugly misshapen caricature her face is broader than her breast, and her head far bigger than her body. He turns away from it in anguish. `Pray endeavour to keep Betsy's recollection of me alive,' he writes. `I fear she will only remember me by the name of father.'

Outside, the sky is dark with clouds and the foul stench from the salt-flats fills his nostrils. Tysoe Saul Hancock, Surgeon-Extraordinary to the garrison at Calcutta, has been in the Sunderbunds for over a month, overseeing his contract to supply chunam to the East India Company. The work is not going well. The Sunderbunds are a vast, desolate region of muddy estuaries and island jungles extending over an area the size of England, southward from below Culpee towards Luckypore in the cast. The jungle is so thick it is impossible to see more than a few feet in any direction, except where the salt-makers have laboured to make a clearing. There is an absence of fresh water, save in those island hollows where tigers, wild hogs and rhinoceroses abound. In the Sunderbunds there are neither houses nor huts, and the labourers who work there making salt or chunam are obliged before sunset to remove in their boats from the shore into the middle of the rivers. Even here they are not perfectly safe, for the tigers sometimes swim out and take them from their boats.

Tysoe Saul Hancock's thoughts turn once again to England, and to the Hampshire rectory of Steventon where his wife, Philadelphia, may, even now, be making one of her frequent visits to her brother, George Austen, the rector. How Hancock envies Austen's peaceful life in his sturdy whitewashed rectory surrounded by lofty English elms and orderly rows of spruce firs! How he covets George's sequestered hours of reading and meditation; his daily visits to see his infant sons, James and George and Edward, at their nurse's cottage on Cheesedown farm; his life of rural contentment, disturbed only by an occasional dispute about a boundary wall between a Harwood and a Hillman. George is an honest man, unlike the coxcombs, politicians and cheats who make up the majority of the English colony in Bengal. In despatching consignments of diamonds back to his wife in England, Hancock has adopted a practice of addressing them to her brother George Austen, `to guard against accidents', as he puts it. Among the accidents he has in mind are the machinations of their old uncle Frank. Frank Austen is supposed to be Hancock's attorney in England, but it is months since Hancock has heard from him, or had any statement of accounts. Money sent to Frank Austen at Sevenoaks has an unfortunate habit of disappearing, he finds, whereas money or diamonds despatched to George Austen of Steventon are sure to reach Philadelphia safely.

Hancock turns once again to the columns of figures in his account book. The loss of the Aurora the previous year was a blow from which he fears he may never recover. Yet still Philadelphia complains at being obliged to apply `for every farthing' to old uncle Frank. How many times must he write to her that he dare not confront Frank Austen directly, for `he has it in his power to hurt me'. Philadelphia's extravagance is a constant anxiety to him. For three years in London they had lived the fashionable life in their handsome apartment off the Strand; for three glorious years there had been splendid parties, elegant balls and spending at the rate of 1,500 [pounds sterling] a year, which was double their actual income. But at last all the money was gone. And now here he is, back in the pestilential Sunderbunds in a forlorn attempt to regain his fortune selling chunam to the Company. `How heartily sorry I am,' he writes to her, `that you do not understand accounts.' Yet all his exhortations to thrift fall on deaf ears. When he tells Philadelphia of the resourceful Mrs Taylor, who `keeps her chariot and pays the schooling of her two children with every expense of housekeeping etc. with only five hundred pound a year', even he cannot restrain a mocking aside: `Surely she must be a great economist!' Economy, he knows, is not in Philadelphia's nature, and in truth it is her extravagance that he loves. With every shipment home he sends her exotic gifts. He sends her the spicy Indian foods she had grown to love in their early married years together at Fort St David's: pickled limes, pickled chillies, balychong spice and cassondy sauce. He sends her favourite rare perfume, the precious attar of roses from Echarabad. He sends her rich Indian fabrics: soosy quilts and palampores for bed-linen, Malda silks, flowered muslin, seersuckers, atlas, doreas and sannow to be made up into gowns and shawls and underwear. He sends rich silks from Cossimbazar and muslin neck-cloths from Pullicat. Although living a life of monastic frugality himself, he cannot bring himself to reprove his wife's fondness for luxury. For Hancock knows if he should ever fail to provide for Philadelphia's desires, however whimsical, there is another who will cheerfully do so; and if he should omit the tender duties of a father towards his darling girl Betsy, there is always a rival father ready to assume his place. Before Hancock finishes his letter, fresh news arrives of further tiger attacks on the chunam workers on the river. `We have unfortunately lost eight men by these terrible beasts,' he tells his wife. But there is other news which may be of greater interest to her. `Mr Hastings is expected here the beginning of March,' he writes, and adds: `his government will prove to him a crown of thorns.'

Deane parsonage, Hampshire, February 1764

It is nearly midnight in Deane parsonage, a damp, dilapidated building of small, dark, inconvenient rooms, scarcely any two of them on a level. George Austen sits at his desk by candlelight, laboriously rewriting the cramped and jumbled entries in the register of the adjoining parish of Steventon. He has had care of the parish for three years now, since his cousin Henry Austen resigned it in favour of the richer living of West Wickham, which lay in the gift of old Frank Austen of Sevenoaks. But George has only recently moved into the neighbourhood; for most of the past three years he has found it more agreeable to remain in Oxford, supported by his life fellowship at St John's. Though the revenues of the Steventon parish have, in the meanwhile, provided a welcome addition to his stipend, he has been quite content to leave the duties of preaching, along with other parochial chores, in the capable hands of another cousin, Thomas Bathurst, the curate. Only the imminent prospect of marriage has finally prompted him to resign from the comforts of St John's and retreat to the isolation of rural Hampshire. Now, as he toils over the parish records, he has reason to doubt the wisdom of that choice.

Torrential rain beats down heavily on the roof, and the uneven rectory floors are muddied with puddles of floodwater. For more than six months there has been unceasing rain in these parts; the river burst its banks in the first week of January, and since then there has been no passage on foot through the village. Several graves in the churchyard have fallen in, and there is no way of getting to church but through neighbour Harwood's garden or yard. The parish well has overflowed and a constant stream of water runs through the village from Shepherd's Pond by Hall Gate, through the common field and down to the parsonage meadow. There have even been small boys in the parsonage yard, catching fish from George Austen's back garden.

As he labours at his self-imposed task of rewriting the parish records, he ponders over the secret histories of the lives whose details are now freshly memorialized in his neat clerical hand. He marvels at the promiscuous career of Mary Bennett, with her three bastard children: Rachel, baptized in July 1742; Hannah, baptized in February 1747; and John, baptized on 23 June 1753 and buried just nine days later. He laments the short, sad life of William Collins, son of Jeremiah and Ann Collins, baptized on 13 April 1749 and buried eight weeks later. How silently these official records reduce the private joys and agonies of this secluded rural world to a few brief categories. How, he wonders, would the lives of his own Austen ancestors appear, abbreviated to such a bald summary? John Austen of Horsmonden in Kent (1560-1620); his son, John Austen II (1585-1650); and his grandson, John Austen III (1629-1705). These Austens had flourished during that fortunate period when the family was included among the wealthiest wool merchants in the county. Power-brokers at county elections, and owners of substantial manor-house properties, their names were proudly enrolled, alongside the Bathursts and Courthorpes, in the annals of that prosperous company of woollen traders known as `the Grey Coats of Kent'. No simple parish record could ever disclose the disreputable details of that reversal of fortunes which his own branch of the Austen family had subsequently endured, and from whose painful consequences George himself still suffered. For that he must turn to a more eloquent document. Reaching inside a drawer, he takes out a sheaf of yellowed papers, loosely bound together by an unpractised hand. This is the private memorandum which his grandmother Elizabeth Austen had set down `for mine and my children's reading', one bleak evening more than fifty years ago, when she found herself widowed, embattled and alone with seven impoverished children to support. Elizabeth's husband — George's grandfather had been a reckless, improvident man, who left many debts behind him when he died suddenly of a consumption in September 1704. Yet at first his widow was not greatly concerned by financial anxieties. Her father-in-law, John Austen, was still living, and was a very rich man, though, as she wrote, known to be `loath to part with anything'. On his deathbed, her husband had begged his father to `consider one child was dear to him as another' and besought him to take care of all seven Austen children. And his father had reassured him, though `by a second hand', that he `would not have him troubled about his debts', that he `would see all should be paid' and that he would `consider all his children'. But once her husband was dead, Elizabeth was quickly to learn how little such promises signified. John Austen now said the funeral should be as private as possible, and refused to allow even expenses of 10 [pounds sterling] to provide mourning clothes for the widow and children. As to his son's debts, he haggled, disputed and delayed, and at one point flatly refused to pay them. At last, after much argument, he was persuaded to part with 200 [pounds sterling]; but on the day before the money was due to be paid, John Austen's brain was seized by a sudden fever and he too died. This was in July 1705, less than a year after the death of his son. The reading of John Austen's will had been a terrible shock to Elizabeth. Even as she recalled it, two years later, the memory of that day could still bring fresh tears to her eyes. She herself was never mentioned in it `unless as it seem'd necessitated to make me appear as no friend, nay rather an enemy to ye family'. But the heaviest blow was `to see my children so unkindly, nay I may say unnaturally dealt with'. For, in defiance of his promise, John Austen had singled out his eldest grandson (also called John) for special favour, but utterly neglected the rest. Grandson John Austen would inherit lands and estates; grandson John would be sent for education to Pembroke College, Cambridge; grandson John would ensure the survival and success of the Austen family line. What happened to his other grandchildren seemed not to concern him at all. Elizabeth had wept to see one child rewarded with a large estate, and `ye others but as if servants'. When she saw how her daughter Betty was to he `cut off from any prospect of future hopes', she could `not forbear saying "Sure my father takes her for a bastard"'. Even the promised 200 [pounds sterling] to pay off her husband's debts was now denied, since, it was said, `it was not specified in his will'. Nor was there anything she could do to challenge such cruelty. `I had no pocket to know ye opinion of my Lord Chancellor in these cases.'

Reading again the severe terms of his own great-grandfather's will, George Austen was compelled to recognize in them an enduring Austen family trait. They were a family who had never scrupled to place sense above sentiment, and the calculations of prudence above mere affections of kinship. For a trading family in adverse circumstances, it was a matter of simple prudence to concentrate its resources, rather than parcel out lands and properties among a numerous progeny. But George's grandmother Elizabeth had thought less of land and chattels than of love and charity. Frusting to God's providence (`I hope He will give a blessing to all honest endeavours'), she had sold off all her household silver, together with her best bed and hangings, to pay off her husband's debts. She then let out the family home and moved to nearby Sevenoaks, where, as housekeeper at the grammar school, she got free schooling for her sons. `It seemed to me,' she wrote, as if I could not do a better thing for my children's good, their education being my great care, and indeed all I think I was capable of doing for `em.'

As he read through his grandmother's meticulous household accounts (`1708-9: For books, wax candle, school-firing and school-sweeping, 14s 6d'), George Austen wondered at the spirit of a woman whose resilience had rescued her children from the life of poverty to which their grandfather's will had seemed to condemn them. Elizabeth's dedication to the virtues of a sound education was something George Austen warmly approved. `I always thought,' she wrote, `if they had learning they might get better shift in ye world, with yt small fortune was alloted `em.' With all the benefits of his own education at Tonbridge School and Oxford, George could not have expressed it better. By the time she died in 1721, his grandmother had the gratification of seeing all her children (save Robert who had died young) safely embarked on their chosen courses towards financial security. Betty was married to Mr Hooper of Tonbridge, and her four dispossessed sons were all apprenticed: Frank to an attorney, Thomas to a haberdasher, Stephen to a stationer, and William to a surgeon in Tonbridge. William Austen was George's father, though his memories of him were slight. He had risen to take up his own practice in Tonbridge, where he married George's mother, Rebecca Walter, the daughter of one physician and widow of another. George himself had been born in 1731, the third child of his parents' marriage and their only son.

George Austen had never known his mother. She had died shortly after the birth of George's sister Leonora, when George was barely a year old. But he did know his stepmother, Susannah Kelk, a selfish, unaffectionate old woman who, even now, continued to reside in their family home at Tonbridge, from which George and his sisters had been banished shortly after their father's death. Naturally, there had been a will to justify his stepmother's ways. George's father had drawn up his will after the death of Rebecca, but before his marriage to Miss Kelk. Accordingly, no provision was made, or thought of, for any duties that a second wife might be expected to undertake on behalf of the children of a first. It was George's uncles, Frank and Stephen, who were nominated to act as guardians in the unhappy event of William Austen's death. Sadly, barely a year after making this second marriage, William Austen did die, quite suddenly, at the early age of thirty-six. His widow quickly left the children in no doubt that, since she was under no legal obligation to care for them, she wanted nothing so much as to be rid of them out of her house.

His uncle Stephen and uncle Frank had also proved themselves to be Austens of the severe and calculating kind. Whether it was that their own early education in the virtues of self-reliance and thrift had marked their characters with a zealous regard for economic self-interest, or whether it was an enduring jealousy of their wealthy eldest brother John, they had no time for any compassion which might interfere with trade. Both uncle Frank and uncle Stephen Austen had made it a point of principle to be rigorously unsentimental in the discharge of their avuncular obligations. Uncle Frank was then unmarried, and had neither the time nor the inclination to attend to the needs of a tribe of young nephews and nieces. He had set himself up in Sevenoaks, `with 800 [pounds sterling] & a bundle of pens', close in the manor-house home of his brother John, where he contrived to amass `a very large fortune'. Uncle Stephen was married and had a son only one year younger than George. So the three Austen children, George, Philadelphia and Leonora, were sent off to his bookseller's shop by St Paul's Churchyard in London, at the sign of the `Angel and Bible'. But uncle Stephen had not taken kindly to receiving these three infant charges into his home. For him, as young George Austen quickly learnt, the business sign which swung and creaked in the high winds that blew along Ludgate Hill was little more than a colourful trademark; it carried no promise of Christian charity. How well George remembered the day when he and his sisters presented themselves at their uncle's door, to be received `with neglect, if not with positive unkindness'. Everything that uncle Stephen had done for them had been done out of duty only, and with an undisguised in will. His sole idea of education had seemed to consist in a settled determination to thwart every natural taste or inclination of his brother's children. And, as soon as he had found a method to contrive it, he had despatched them on their travels once more, with no thought for their own wishes. George and his sisters had been cruelly separated and billeted out, one by one, in the homes of such relatives as could be prevailed upon to accept such an unwelcome burden. George himself was packed off to live with aunt Hooper at Tonbridge, where uncle Frank paid for tuition at Tonbridge School. Philadelphia was sent to their cousins, the Freemans, whence she had long since taken flight to Mr Hancock in Bengal; Leonora was despatched to begin that long, lonely existence as an object of family charity from which she had still not escaped.

George Austen remembered Tonbridge School with a good deal of affection. It was there he had learnt to thrive under the patient discipline and sound instruction of his masters. The consciousness of his own impoverished circumstances had spurred him on to seize every opportunity for advancement. At the age of sixteen, he had gone up to St John's College, Oxford, on a fellowship reserved for boys from the school. Oxford had been his salvation. How he had loved the rituals and traditions of its collegiate life! Thereafter, his progress had been swift: a College Exhibition in 1751; ordination as a deacon in Christ Church Cathedral three years later; a period of schoolmastering at Tonbridge School, then a happy return to St John's as assistant chaplain and junior proctor. Oxford had always been good to him. Now, as he contemplated the uncertainties of married life in this damp corner of Hampshire, he was less sanguine about the future.

George Austen took out the miniature portrait that Cassandra Leigh had given him on their engagement two years earlier and contemplated the face of his future bride. Cassandra's features were aristocratic; her hair was dark and her eyes an unusual tint of grey. She had an instinctive tendency to depreciate her own appearance; it was her elder sister Jane, she always insisted, who was the beauty of the family. But Cassandra did admit to a certain vanity concerning her fine patrician blade of a nose. She was amusingly particular about people's noses, he remembered, like one of the characters in the Reverend Laurence Sterne's strange new novel, Tristram Shandy. In the portrait, she wore an elegant blue gown which set off the slenderness of her face and her slight, spare figure. They had met first in Oxford, where the Leigh family had some very grand connections. Her uncle Theophilus had been Master of Balliol for almost forty years and was one of the university's celebrated wits. Cassandra loved to boast how as a six-year-old girl she had entertained this august figure with some smart nursery charades of her own devising. The old man, she said, had been greatly amused and had immediately pronounced her `the poet of the family'. Praise indeed from a man whose own bons mots were applauded by no less an authority than Samuel `Dictionary' Johnson! Cassandra's father, Thomas Leigh, had also been an Oxford man, elected into a fellowship at All Souls at so young an age that he was always known as `Chick Leigh'. Cassandra had inherited much of her family's formidable quickness of wit and sharpness of memory. Though she was much given to regrets that her education had been `not ... much attended to', it was her lively intelligence (what she called her `sprack wit') that particularly endeared her to him. He did, though, experience a certain diffedence when she spoke, as she loved to do, of her family background. For the Leighs had rather more to boast of than mere academic honours. They were an aristocratic family with a distinguished pedigree stretching back to the Reformation. Cassandra was never happier than when rehearsing the stories of her noble ancestors. There was Sir Thomas Leigh, who as Lord Mayor of London had conducted Queen Elizabeth on her coronation ride to St Paul's Cross in 1558. There was William Leigh of Adlestrop, who had forfeited his estates, and endured incarceration in Gloucester prison, in the cause of his sovereign, Charles I. And there was Sir Thomas Leigh of Stoneleigh, who had sheltered Charles against his Roundhead enemies when the gates of Coventry were shut against him. Cassandra's grandmother, Mary Brydges, was the sister of the Duke of Chandos, and the name Cassandra, which she shared with her aunt, was a Leigh family tribute to the Duke's wife, who bore the same name. All this was rather daunting for an orphaned boy whose own grandmother had been a school housekeeper. As he contemplated Cassandra Leigh's slender, aristocratic features, George wondered how a woman from such a family would take to the unglamorous life of a country vicar's wife in a humble rural rectory.

It was not that she was unfamiliar with the life of a country clergyman. Her own father had for twenty years been rector of Harpsden in Oxfordshire until ill health had latterly forced him to retire to Bath. But Steventon was not Harpsden. Cassandra had been visibly discouraged by her first sight of the countryside surrounding her future Steventon home. She had been unable to disguise her dismay at the low, undulating Hampshire landscape when compared with the broad river, the rich valley and the noble hills she had been accustomed to behold at her native home near Henley. Since their first meeting, George Austen had constantly striven to maintain a genteel air of confident prosperity. Their courtship had taken place in the fashionable squares and elegant crescents of Bath, or among the ancient quadrangles and sequestered college gardens of Oxford. Now, rather than dismay his future bride by disclosing the true privations of Steventon rectory (a small, dilapidated house of the most miserable description), he had hit upon a bold expedient. The rector of Deane, Mr Hillman, was a wealthy man who chose to inhabit the nearby mansion of Ashe Park rather than his own parish parsonage. Anxious to maintain appearances, George Austen had thought it a prudent investment to pay Hillman 20 [pounds sterling] a year in rent to live at Deane parsonage, rather than shock Cassandra with the prospect of Steventon's narrow rooms. But he had reckoned without the rain and the floods. These recent inundations had reduced the parsonage to a state of waterlogged squalor, less prepossessing even than the rectory at Steventon. It was a useful lesson to him. He turned back to the parish records and resumed his work of patient transcription. `John Cooper, the bastard son of Elizabeth Payne, privately baptised Feb 23, 1762.' Hereafter he would never seek to hide from his wife the realities of life in a rural parish.

Walcot church, Bath, February 1764

Away in Bath, Cassandra Leigh was leaving St Swithin's church in Walcot parish, where her father Thomas had been buried a few days earlier. His death, after a protracted illness, must put an end to any further delays in her proposed marriage to George Austen of Steventon. She reflected on what a mighty change in her circumstances this marriage must entail. It was not, perhaps, the kind of match that might once have been thought of. In terms of character Mr Austen was all that she could wish. He was blessed with a bright and hopeful disposition, combined with a mildness of temper and steadiness of principle. In appearance, too, he was more than satisfactory. At Oxford he had been known as `the Handsome Proctor' on account of his commanding height and distinguished features. His eyes were not large but of a peculiarly bright hazel; his complexion was clear, his countenance animated and his whole appearance striking. Even in the miniature portrait which he had exchanged for hers at the time of their engagement, and in which he wore a pompous powdered wig with four sausage curls over each ear, the eyes retained their dark luminosity. But in material terms it was hardly a match from which she could anticipate much ease, far less riches. There was, apparently, the prospect of some freehold properties in Tonbridge which he would inherit on his stepmother's death. That apart, they would be required to support themselves on Mr Austen's clerical income, which her father had reckoned at no more than 100 [pounds sterling] per annum, together with whatever produce might be yielded from the use of nearby farmland. Then there was Mr Austen's uncle Frank. Cassandra had heard a good deal about wealthy Frank Austen of Kent anti what he might do to assist them. In recent years, it seems Frank Austen had been busily buying up all the valuable land around Sevenoaks. Having remained thriftily single until he was nearly fifty, he had then married two wealthy wives. By the first, who died in childbirth, he had acquired some modest lands and properties; by the second wife, he had become a very wealthy man. She was a widow, left a great estate by her husband's will. But the man's family — the Lennards of West Wickham — had chosen to contest the will. The widow Lennard had then `flung her cause into the hands of ... old Frank Austen'. Old Frank Austen had not only won the case, but won the wealthy widow as well. He had also persuaded the rich old Lady Falkland to act as godmother to his son, Francis-Motley According to Mr Austen, this might easily produce a legacy to the boy worth 100,000 [pounds sterling]. Cassandra knew that Frank Austen had recently purchased, on Mr Austen's behalf, the livings of the two adjacent parishes to Steventon, Ashe and Deane, so that Mr Austen might enjoy the revenues of whichever fell vacant first. But she drew little consolation from the thought that her best prospect of material comfort must depend on some neighbouring clergyman's death.

Yet, reflecting on her past experience (she was already nearly twenty-five!) and maturely considering with herself her best hopes of future happiness, Cassandra had decided that he must be the one. Many sensible men, she acknowledged, including perhaps her own dear Tom Lybbe-Powys, were somewhat alarmed by her habit of expressing opinions and her fondness for scribbling irreverent rhymes. She readily conceded that she was no great beauty. And of course, there was no question of anything that one could call a dowry. According to the terms of her father's will, she would inherit some leasehold properties in Oxford and the sum of 1,000 [pounds sterling] on the death of her mother. But that, she hoped would be many years off. Her aunt Cassandra had received a 3,000 [pounds sterling] dowry from the Duke of Chandos, in part on account of sharing his wife's Christian name; but sadly, this tradition had not been continued to the next generation. Of course, things were very different for her brother James. He already enjoyed the life of a landed gentleman, thanks to the intervention of great-aunt Anne Perrot, who used to read them nursery stories, and taught fine needlework to herself and Jane. Great-aunt Anne had persuaded her childless brother Thomas to bequeath his estate at Northleigh to James. All that James had had to do was change his name from Leigh to Leigh-Perrot. James had then sold Northleigh to the Duke of Marlborough, and bought the charming Berkshire property of Scarlets, between Maidenhead and Reading. And now, it seemed, James was in the way to acquire yet more desirable properties. A marriage was in prospect with Miss Jane Cholmeley of Lincolnshire, who was heiress, as Cassandra heard, to grand estates in the Barbadoes.

Cassandra did not begrudge her brother his good fortune. Not herself romantic, her highest aspiration in matrimony was for kindness rather than wealth; her fondest hope was to emulate the contentment of her own parents' marriage. Her father had been widely known as one of the most sweet-tempered and cheerful of men. Their family life together in the old red-brick rectory at Harpsden might have been a period of happiness without alloy, had it not been for poor Thomas. It was several years since Cassandra had last seen her younger brother. In the family, his name was seldom mentioned. But she could still vividly recall his unavailing infant struggles to form a syllable or pronounce even the simplest of words. No one seemed to know the precise nature of his affliction. The physicians had many names for it, but were unequal to finding a cure. And then one day, when Cassandra herself was barely ten years old, little Thomas had been taken from the rectory, never to return. It was, undoubtedly, the only wise solution. She understood that Thomas was boarded out at the little village of Monk Sherborne, near Basingstoke, by a kindly couple called Cullum. He must now be sixteen years old.

It was only natural that Cassandra should have some misgivings at the momentous step she was about to take. Her first view of Mr Austen's Steventon parish had not greatly endeared the place to her. The landscape was low and undistinguished by any striking natural features; the rectory was mean and in a state of disrepair. But most of all she felt a lingering regret about severing her ties of affection with Tom Lybbe-Powys. The two of them had been friends since infancy, when they had played together at Hardwick Hall. or with the Cooper children at Phyllis Court. At last, the time had come for Tom to tell her that childhood friendship had matured into adult affection; but he had then no income to support a wife, nor any prospect of obtaining one. Whereas Mr Austen was the rector of one parish with the promise of another. She remembered the day, more than a year ago now, that had brought the news Tom's appointment as rector of' Fawley parish in Buckingham. By then she had engaged herself to Mr Austen, and the letter she had sent to Tom was filled with a tender regret. None of his friends, she wrote. could feel more real joy this good fortune than she did herself. `I am infinitely happy to know you Rector of Fawley as I well remember to have heard you wish for that appellation at a time when there was little probability of our living to see the day.' As she went on, she had allowed herself to indulge a brief fantasy of what might have been. `May every wish of your heart meet with the same success,' she had written. `May every blessing attend you, for no one more deserves to be blessed; &, (as the greatest felicity on earth) may you soon be in the possession of some Fair one, who must be one of the very best of her sex, or she will not merit the good fortune that awaits her. If her heart is as full of love & tenderness towards you, as mine is —' There she had paused. For a moment she had let the phrase stand as it was, as if complete: `as mine is'. Then she had forced herself to supply the obligatory closing cadence: `as mine is of esteem & friendship, you will have no cause to complain...' Cassandra Leigh was too rational a person to dwell in a world of what might have been. Her future lay at Steventon in Hampshire and she resolved to accept it. She hoped that neither she nor Tom would ever have cause to complain.

George Austen completed his revision of the Steventon parish register on 11 March 1764. Four days later, the marriage settlement between himself and Cassandra Leigh was signed. They were married by licence on 26 April 1764 at St Swithin's church in Bath, where the marriage service was conducted by the rector of Fawley, Tom Lybbe-Powys. It was not an elaborate wedding. There was no money to waste on an extravagant bridal gown and, instead of virginal white silks, Cassandra wore a sensible travelling dress of hard-wearing red woollen fabric, cut in the style of a riding habit. The newly-wed pair set out straightaway for Hampshire, and their only honeymoon was a single night spent at Andover en route. Even that was hardly a romantic interlude. They were accompanied on their journey by a sickly seven-year-old boy — George Hastings.

Hertford Street, London, June 1773

Philadelphia Hancock took a brief survey of the drawing-room of her new home in Hertford Street. For a modest house even here, in the most fashionable part of town, the rent still seemed excessive. But at last she need have no more worries on that score. She and Betsy need never worry about money again. The letter that had come from Calcutta that morning had filled her with sheer delight. Hancock had always said the girl was to have the very best music-masters, hut had despaired of finding the money to pay for them. He had often decreed that Betsy should learn `to sit gracefully on a horse & ride without fear' (for her health only; Hancock called fox-hunting `an indecent amusement for a lady') but had lamented that he could not afford riding lessons. Now they could pay for everything — music-masters, riding-masters, dressmakers, even (if necessary) teachers of arithmetic. Philadelphia took up the letter once more, which trembled in her hand as she read it. `A few days ago Mr Hastings, under the polite term of making his god-daughter a present, made over to me a Respondentia bond for 40,000 rupees to be paid in China. I have given directions for the amount, which will be about 5,000 [pounds sterling] to be immediately remitted home to my attorneys.' Even Hancock, though he might regret the source of this sudden wealth, could not repine at its consequences. Betsy would now have a chance to become the fine young lady he had always wanted her to be. Philadelphia called out to Clarinda, her Indian maid, to make the girl ready for the first visit of Mr Berg, who was to instruct her in playing the guitar.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi
Acknowledgements xiii
Introduction 1
PART I Family Secrets
Chapter 1 Family Secrets 11
PART II Steventon
Chapter 2 Noisy and Wild 55
Chapter 3 Growing Up 87
Chapter 4 Partial Prejudiced & Ignorant 118
Chapter 5 Profligate and Shocking 154
Chapter 6 I Say Nothing 189
PART III Labyrinths
Chapter 7 Conspiracy 231
Chapter 8 The Wrong Place 259
Chapter 9 Abuse Everybody but Me 303
PART IV Chawton
Chapter 10 One's Own Concerns 357
Chapter 11 Wild Beast 397
Chapter 12 A Little Disguised 432
Chapter 13 My Own Style 477
Chapter 14 Pictures of Perfection 520
Notes 529
Index 561
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